On the Road

On the Road: 2002

Life in Mattyrau
21 June 2002

The morning greeted me with a cold shower in a dinky stall; drop the soap and you'll have to go through some odd contortions to pick it up.

It's mind-blowing to think $98 US can buy a decent, working hotel room in New York City, London, and Paris, but not in the town of Atyrau.

It all goes back to basic economics: Supply and demand. Atyrau is on the verge of becoming a boom town, and for those who have been coming out here for the past 12 years, they've already seen massive changes. Some say it's not as fun now because it isn't as dangerous and adventurous as it was when the gates first opened up to this new frontier.

The attraction is oil. Perhaps the biggest oil find in the history of mankind lies beneath the Caspian Sea. They're hoping to have production up and running by 2005, but some think that's an overly ambitious goal. There's much to be done and talking about it lights up the faces of some of the engineers. The explosion of workers in the area because of this oil project has created a severe room shortage, jacking up the rates for a crappy dorm-like room to near Hilton-level prices. Ex-pats are being charged upward of $1,500 US for monthly apartment rentals. They're not getting good value, that's a certainty.

A new high-rise 5-star hotel (the River Palace) is being built across the river, on the Europa side of Kaz. It's a monolithic structure that looms ominously on the horizon, particularly at sunset. It should open in a couple months, a little too late for me. Instead, I shuffle between the Riverside on some nights and the Chagala on other nights, when I can be squeezed into a room.

Chagala's a lot nicer and far more convenient. The X office is basically across the street from the Chagala and our training classes are being conducted in the Chagala's conference rooms.

There's even an Irish pub, O'Neill's, on the grounds of the Chagala. A fairly faithful recreation of the real thing, it's complete with Guinness on tap and Thursday Quiz Nights (totally rigged, but fun).

On the heels of my auspicious first Kazakh night and my first day of training, which included a late start because the X van wasn't waiting for me at 7:30 a.m. as planned and a total network shutdown in the middle of the afternoon, I was pretty pooped. The first time I saw that Guinness tap, my face lit up - diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks. During my first visit to O'Neill's, one of my trainees, Ian, saw me and commented that I'm a lucky guy, I have a lucky glow about me. It must have been a Guinness glow, because it would be hard to call that day a lucky one.

The shuffling around is a bit of a nuisance, but a Riverside shower that actually made me feel more dirty after than I did before pretty much made it a necessity. The water was a filthy, dirty, brownish, smelly murk. After that particularly nasty experience, my eyes were so hazy, everything was a blur for a couple hours. I don't think it was just the contacts acting up.

As for the cold water during my first couple mornings, the issue allegedly ties back to the government. On occasion, they shut off the hot water in certain districts, including the one where the Riverside sits. Yep. The government pipes in hot water. Complaining to X's travel department can only get you so far on this one. Some people in the department live in that area - and they too are without hot water.

It doesn't make sense. Hearing about a woman who has only hot water, no cold water, only makes things more confused.

I'm convinced the couple girls working reception at the Riverside are highly amused by my situation. When I checked out (for the second time), the one girl said, "Things not good in the annex?"

"No," was my wimper-like reply, timed and spoken so as to generate sympathy.

It didn't work. She giggled and seemed amused that I'd be back in the annex (their overflow rooms outside the main building) after one more night in the Chagala. She had no rooms in the main building to offer.

Well, at least they're cute girls - and nice. They're always giggling. That takes some of the sting out of it. But, when I make girls laugh, I really prefer to know why they're laughing!

Staying at the Riverside offers this bonus: A scenic taxi ride through town, providing a good survey of the poverty in the area. The saddest and most shocking sight was seeing women, mostly old, hunched over sweeping the dusty, dirty sidewalks with handbrooms (the variety with only a two-foot handle). The activity itself seems futile; to be so ill-equipped only makes it worse.

While the streets are simple and more than adequate for the current levels of traffic, the taxi drivers, in keeping with the tradition held by their international brethren, do their best to keep things life-threatening. They'll dart about, weaving through traffic, dodging car-sized potholes, and making things more thrilling than they normally would be. Some are friendly and struggle through generating conversation while no common ground for language exists. Others are quiet and almost cranky. One was a bit of a pervert, darting about in a taxi we affectionately nicknamed the Pimp Mobile. With a plush leopardskin interior, tinted windows, and a photo of a topless woman on the dash, that car was ready for some action. If it's a rockin', don't come a knockin'!

The taxi drivers are also kept honest, if you go through the hotel's reception desk. When the taxi is called, they quote the price up front.

In the markets, there are scads of cheap CDs for purchase (most go for 300 Kazakh tenge each, roughly $2 US). Windows XP (by "Alex Soft") can be purchased for around $5 US.

Most stores are very small holes in the wall, with room for only a couple people to move about. It can be hot and sweaty in there, particularly under the heat of the midday sun. For the most part, there's no such thing as window shopping in Atyrau. Unless you can read Kazakh, chances are you'll walk right by the stores at first. The vast majority of the stores don't have display windows and those that do have the view blocked by cabinets or shelves. You have to open the door and peek inside to see what they've got.

One site referred to as "The Market" is kind of a combination department store and quasi-flea market. Outside, there are booths with people selling toiletries and other supplies. They're all selling the same stuff, basically. Inside, there are bigger ticket items like shoes, eyeglasses, fancy cigarette lighters, and cell phones. It's a very, very, very different shopping experience and the language barrier only accentuates the situation.

While walking around, the foreigners get looks, which happens everywhere. But in this case I'm not sure it's flattering. While walking along the river, young girls will smile as they walk by and say, "Hi," very much with the purest of attentions. Some boys come up to say, "Hi," and begin what seems like a genuine attempt to make conversation (like, "What's your name?"). But then they start hitting you up for money. One industrious kid simply cuts to the chase and his spiel goes, "Hi. Money. Money. Money. MONEY." After walking a block, he moves on.

In the market, though, the looks and stares are from people not so much curious as wary of an invader. In a way, it's a sad experience.

All is not forsaken in Atyrau, however. Around the "X Compound," the people are mostly friendly, particularly the Kazakhs working for X. They're sharp. And the ladies are quite lovely, especially when they smile and their pronounced dimples appear.

Also, some of the Chagala staff are spunky (that goes double for the ladies working at O'Neill's). Curious about our activities, a couple strike up conversations; there are a few who speak Kazakh, Russian, English, and even some French. One in particular has a father who worked as an engineer, but now that he's 50, he can't find work. The girl knows four languages and is computer-savvy, but she's waitressing at the East/West restaurant in the Chagala for 16,000 tenge/month. ($1 US = 150 tenge; you do the math.)

During my days in Poland, I was chatting with a guy in a pub and one of his comments was that I had opportunity back in the United States. His comment came back to haunt me after hearing the waitress' story. I've been irked many a time by the irrational injustice of life in Corporate America, but at least I have the opportunity and the power to do something about it. Meeting people who want to make things happen, but who are born into an environment that leaves them powerless to do so, puts a new perspective on things.

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